By Bill Kearney
Nov 16, 2022 at 7:00 am
The National Marine Fisheries Service recently proposed more than 900 square miles of regional waters be designated as “critical habitat” for the threatened Nassau grouper.
The area would include water stretching from Key Biscayne, along the Keys to Tavernier, as well as sections near Marathon, Key West, the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas.
Crucial Nassau grouper spawning sites in U.S. waters near Puerto Rico and SaintThomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, would also be designated as “critical habitat.”
The proposal is the result of a 2020 lawsuit filed by Miami Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians against the National OceanicAtmospheric Administration’s National Fisheries Service, claiming that the Service failed to follow timelines stipulated by the Endangered Species Act.
In 2016, NOAA listed the Nassau grouper as threatened under the Act, which meant they needed to “designate critical habitat for the Nassau grouper concurrently with its decision to list the species as threatened.”
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“I’m glad Nassau groupers are poised to get the habitat protection they badly need to thrive again,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Catherine Kilduff in a release. “These fish are a sign of healthy reefs and ocean ecosystems, and making sure the Nassau grouper can flourish helps secure clean water, living corals and robust seagrass beds. Now we also need to ensure they’re protected from climate change’s growing threats.”
The Nassau grouper’s range stretches from Florida’s east coast, around the Caribbean Islands, along the north coast of South America and up around the Yucatan Peninsula. It also includes Bermuda. But there are only a few spawning sites that feed that entire range.
According to NOAA, Nassau grouper are particularly vulnerable to population decline, in part, because of the way they spawn. On full moons from November through February, thousands will gather in specific sites in the Caribbean to mingle their eggs and sperm on currents. The spawning aggregations are highly predictable and have been occurring at the same spots for decades, making them easy targets for commercial fishing.
Of the 50 known spawning sites in the Caribbean, only 20 remain.
“One of the biggest reasons they were listed [as threatened] in the first place is fishing on aggregation sites,” said Patrick Opay, endangered species biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“There were a lot of aggregation sites with nice numbers, and through the years there’s fewer sites, or the sites have fewer numbers of animals. They migrate to these areas and they’re all together, and the fishermen are smart — it’s easy pickings, and they fish them all out.
“If you’re a fisherperson, it’s logical to minimize your costs, but from a species standpoint, it’s really bad,” he said. “The aggregations are a cool phenomenon, but it’s tough for the animals because they’re just targets.”
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Larva from the Caribbean spawning sites drift on ocean currents to populate reefs all over the region.
The proposal protects spawning sites in U.S. waters, as well as coral reef systems ideal for larval survival, and rocky and seagrass areas that juvenile grouper use for shelter from larger fish, and as ambush points for their prey.
Biologists don’t know of any spawning sites in Florida waters, meaning all Nassaugrouper in state waters have originated in the Caribbean.
What exactly does ‘critical habitat’ mean?
The designation of “critical habitat” does not create a marine preserve or park. It essentially means that any federal project in the area is under greater environmental scrutiny. “When a federal agency does something [in that area] — that could be funding, Army Corps of Engineering permitting — if they potentially may affect the species and critical habitat, then those agencies have to include that in their analysis and figure out what the effects of their activities are, and what that does to the critical habitat,” Opay said.
That does not mean no federal work can occur, but “we work to minimize that if there are potential impacts,” Opay said. Would the designation affect lobstering, snorkel and dive operations or fishing for other species in the critical habitat area? “No, [stakeholders] can go fish, swim, snorkel, boat. The only time there would be an issue was if there was something federally connected that funds activity in that area.”
It has been illegal to possess Nassau grouper in Florida waters since 1993. In 2004, the species became fully protected in both state and federal waters of Puerto Rico, and by 2006 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The proposal’s comment period for the general public runs until Dec. 16 of this year, and the law requires NOAA to put out a final ruling within a year.